Today is Jan. 5, 2014. It’s been a fairly steep learning curve as I’ve attended the opening workshop for NITARP, the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, NITARP provides opportunities for science teachers and their students to do professional-level research using NASA’s infrared data archives located at IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. The purpose of today’s workshop was to bring the new class of teachers up to speed with the program. Here is a press release about the NITARP teams at AAS: NITARP_release_final
There are seven of us that have been chosen this year, a smaller group than previously because funding sources have constricted due to sequestration (more on this in a future post) and the budget uncertainty. There are also two mentor teachers who have participated before. We have been divided into two teams. I will be working with Dr. Luisa Rebull as the lead astronomer and with John Gibbs as our mentor teacher. There are three of us new teachers on Luisa’s team.
Part of our process today was to pick a research topic and a time this summer when we will for our training workshop at Caltech. We also chose what time each week to hold a telecon to stay in communication. We still need to pick a team name.
We met in the Chesapeake 12 meeting room at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland where the American Astronomical Society conference will be starting tonight. The MAGFest (Music and Gaming Festival) is still winding down today, and there were a few unusually dressed people wandering around, though somewhat subdued after last night’s partying. By afternoon the astronomers started filtering in.
We started with general introductions of each other and a basic overview of the program and its goals and timeline. After breaking for group photos, we were introduced to the types of data archives available at IPAC and given a primer on astronomical imaging. IPAC holds data from many missions, primarily in the infrared band from such missions as IRAS, Spitzer, 2MASS, and WISE. It also holds NED, the NASA Extragalactic Database, and the NASA Exoplanet Archive. Luisa has done much of the work on designing a common interface for these datasets and creating links between them, including datasets by ESA missions such as Herschel and Planck. She also directs the NITARP program. Here is a link to the IPAC website: http://www.ipac.caltech.edu/.
One of the most interesting parts of our discussion was when we asked Luisa and Varoujan how they came to be interested in the subjects they’re experts in (young stellar objects and active galactic nuclei, among others). They both said you often get involved in a mentor teacher’s project as an undergrad or graduate student, become expert in that area, then follow your nose. Sometimes you need to learn about things you don’t anticipate. Varoujan said he had to become an expert at zodiacal dust so that he could remove it from readings of the cosmic infrared background radiation.
During lunch, we met as a team and discussed several possible projects. These included extensions of previous projects, such as looking for young stars embedded in globules of dust at the edge of Bright Rimmed Clouds (BRCs). These clouds have hot young stars that are pushing dust and gas away from them in a bubble. At the edge of the bubble, fingers of denser material extend into the cleared area in the center. Inside these fingers, protostars are forming. One such area is the nebula IC1398. Another is the Eagle Nebula made famous by the Hubble image. The Wall inside the Orion Nebula is a BRC created by the Trapezium stars.
Another possible project was to characterize stars in a Moving Group, an association of stars that all formed in the same open nebula and have moved together ever since. Some of these have grown so large that they have only recently been recognized from proper motion studies. We would look at them in infrared and see if they have excess IR, indicative of protoplanetary disks, which would confirm that they are young stars.
Although these are both fascinating, the first project has been done a lot by previous groups. The second one we discovered today has just barely been published by a group of astronomers. We’ve been scooped! So we turned to a third idea, which we know has not been done. We would extend the work of Dr. Jolene Campbell on giant stars that have excess lithium. Usually, lithium is not found much in stars. It is bypassed in the normal nucleosynthesis process that builds heavier elements out of hydrogen and helium fusion. What lithium there is in a star when it first forms is quickly broken down by fusion in the core.
Yet some stars have more lithium than they should have, especially stars beginning their giant phase, migrating off of the main sequence. One theory is that these stars have developed larger convective zones as they expand and are dredging up lithium from the radiative zone below. The other theory is that the lithium is coming from planets that the stars are swallowing as they expand (which will happen to us in about 5 billion years). Her study also looked at the rotation rates of about 150 such lithium rich stars. We would extend her study by looking at the same stars in infrared to see if there is any excess, which would be caused by a debris field of dust as the planets are destroyed.
This immediately struck us as a pretty interesting topic in that it deals with stellar evolution, planetary destruction, the chemistry and rotation of stars, and the fate of our own solar system. It will not be an easy topic. We’ll have to worry about calibration issues and the disks we’re looking at are faint and hard to isolate from the glare of the stars. But that’s what science is about- making order and meaning out of uncertainty and chaos. We’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of us. We’ll travel to Caltech for training the last week in July and we’ll have out weekly telecons at 5:00 on Mondays, Mountain Time. It’ll be fun!
We also talked about what to expect at the AAS conference and received a treasure hunt assignment to help us maximize our experience here. The teams from this last year came in at the end of the day to give a short introduction to their posters. We looked at the posters more closely as a group and John described the process their team went through to make them.
After crashing for an hour in my room and talking with my youngest kids on the phone, I headed down to the opening reception in Potomac Ballroom A. One of our assignments is to network and talk to people, which I don’t have any problem doing. While standing in line for horse doovers, another man came in line behind me and offered to take the plate of roast beef I’d just finished to a receptacle tray. He was wearing a brown suit coat and had a mustache and glasses. He recognized the lady in front of me, who works at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and said to us, “It’s a good thing they have free food. Those of use who work in the D.C. area don’t get expense accounts to pay for food here.” I asked him where he works, and he said NASA Headquarters, so I asked him his name and what he did there. Come to find out, it was Dr. Paul Hertz, the Director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate for NASA. In other words, he oversees all the astrophysics research done at NASA. We had a nice conversation about the NITARP program, which he was very familiar with. He mentioned he had been to Logan, Utah to visit USU’s space science program.
I kept thinking how more than half of the people in the room would have loved to be having the conversation I was having. Dr. Hertz has authored more than 100 papers and is responsible for a $1.25 billion annual budget. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about being part of NASA’s education programs. The people who are much greater, smarter, and more important to our future than any movie star or “celebrity” are still very approachable and willing to strike up a conversation with a high school teacher like me.